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The Role of Women’s Genealogical Societies in the Rewriting of American History, c. 1890-1914 by Anya Cooper

In the aftermath of the Civil War, American nationalists faced the question of how to forge a participatory sense of allegiance to a nation recently divided over slavery. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) attempted to provide an answer to this question. The DAR was centred in Washington, drew most of its membership from the North, and concentrated on the telling of a ‘revolutionary’ past. The UDC, by contrast, had a deeply southern makeup, focusing on the ‘Confederate’ past. My research brings the discourses and activities of these organisations into a single history to suggest that the allegiances built between northern and southern white women, based upon shared conservative racial and social values, helped pave the way to sectional reconciliation along white supremacist lines.

The practice of genealogy by the women of these organisations underlined a shared lineage and imaged racial unity between white northerners and white southerners, perpetuating a vision of America as an extended ‘Anglo-Saxon’ family. By establishing membership to the nation along racialised lines, these women reintegrated the former Confederacy into the nation. Their genealogical vision systematically excluded those deemed to be ‘non-whites’ from the national family, providing the elite white membership of the DAR and UDC with a bulwark against the threatening developments of new immigration and the ‘race problem’. In doing so, these women strengthened these cross-sectional ties further by tapping into shared traditional understandings of the family and gender roles. They venerated the supportive female steward and the male patriarch as central to the stability and strength of the nation.

While membership to the DAR and UDC encouraged white northern and southern women to recognise their shared interests and commonalities, in terms of race, gender and class, it was not until these women forged a shared historical understanding that the sections could truly unite. Whether tracing their lineage back to a Revolutionary or Confederate past, both organisations perpetuated narratives of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ heroism, valour and progress. In particular, the women of these organisations negotiated a highly selective interpretation of the Civil War, calling upon the nation to simultaneously remember and wilfully forget. Written according to the ‘Lost Cause’ script, this historical vision overlooked the issue of slavery whilst redefining Confederates as American heroes in the eyes of both northerners and southerners. These organisations reimagined the Civil War as a noble struggle rather than a battle between ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’. By reconfiguring historical memory through educational programmes, the UDC and DAR embedded their vision of white national heroism within the public consciousness, facilitating reunion along white supremacist lines.

The DAR and UDC imprinted their vision of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ unity onto the face of an increasingly heterogeneous nation through various monument-building and historical preservation projects. These enduring symbols of the past enabled the women of the DAR and UDC to shape public memory in ways which supported their authority in the present and ensured the survival of their racial and social values in the future. Significantly, the 1914 Arlington Monument (constructed by the UDC, supported by the DAR and authorised by an act of Congress) heralded Confederate patriots as American patriots on the basis that they too were preservers of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ civilization. Scenes of loyal slaves, heroic white men and dutiful white women were carved around the plinth to represent, in the words of a member of the design committee, ‘the kindly relations that existed over the South between the master and the slave.’[1] That Confederate soldiers had been widely embraced as nation-making heroes by the early twentieth century was revealed by President Wilson’s speech at the unveiling. Accepting the monument on behalf of the government, he declared: ‘I remember one day in the Century Cyclopaedia of Names I had occasion to turn to the name of Robert E. Lee, and I found him there in that book published in New York city simply described as a great American general.’[2] The federal government’s endorsement of the erection of this Confederate monument on a national site symbolised not only its embrace of the ‘Lost Cause’, but its approval of the South’s behaviour in the present-day context of Jim Crow and their terms for reconciliation, namely white supremacy and states’ rights.

The victory of the white South in securing their terms in sectional reconciliation is encapsulated by the words of a UDC member in 1899: ‘The old Confederate soldier looks down from the sky and laughs as he sees the principles for which he fought established, the great battle for the Constitution, State’s rights, white supremacy, all the South has conquered.’[3] The institutions of slavery and the plantation had mutated into new forms of exploitation like sharecropping and segregation in the decades after the Civil War, and northerners appeared more than willing by the turn of the century to accept those systems and concede southern authority on racial matters. The DAR’s idealisation of the southern plantation demonstrates how the North was beginning to endorse southern conceptions of race relations. At the DAR 1900 annual meeting, Mrs Park, with a nod to the organisation’s few southern members, painted an idyllic portrait of slavery in front of a predominantly northern audience: ‘a black mammy on a Southern plantation – how many of you Southern women remember her with tenderest affection, the blessed old mammy of your childhood.’[4] The women of the DAR and UDC had secured their joint stake in the future of the nation by ensuring racial hierarchy cut across sectional animosity as the underlying divide in America.

The legacy of the nation conceived by the DAR and UDC can still be found in today’s discourses of national identity. While popularised by Trump, ‘Make America Great Again’ (‘MAGA’) is not a contemporary phenomenon, but one which can be traced back to the Daughters’ turn-of-the-century white supremacist project. The ‘MAGA’ mantra resonated with white Americans in 2016 in the same way as it did with those at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was taken up to fight various social and political changes, in reaction to the first black president, the growing prospect of becoming a majority-minority country, and the emergence of alternative family models. Like DAR and UDC narratives before it, the nostalgic ‘MAGA’ myth presents a triumphant version of the past, overlooking contradictory experiences of non-whites whilst heralding the ‘glory days’ of white America. In 2017, white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia to violently protest the removal of Confederate monuments. Trump framed the incident as a struggle between those who wish to preserve history and those who wish to erase it.[5] Comparing Confederate generals to the founding fathers, he declared he was ‘sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart…Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?’.[6]

And yet, the year 2020 has witnessed indications of real change.  In the wake of the murder of George Floyd on May 25, the toppling of statues and how history is remembered has become a key battleground in the Black Lives Matter struggle. As statues fall on both sides of the Atlantic, histories once silenced by groups like the DAR and UDC are resurfacing. Entire nations are being compelled to re-imagine their present through a new understanding of their past. These conversations have been needed for a very long time.

Anya Cooper is a recent History Graduate from the University of Cambridge and this year’s winner of the Women’s History Network Undergraduate Dissertation Prize. Her research interrogates the relationship between genealogy, race, gender and the nation. The originality of her findings throughout her degree was recognised with six academic awards from Cambridge, including the Sara Norton Prize for the best dissertation on American History across the university. An aspiring journalist and documentary filmmaker, Anya’s future goal is to help make the public discussion on race and identity in Britain richer and more productive than it currently is. 

[1] Herbert, History of the Arlington Confederate Monument, p. 77.

[2] The Monument at Arlington’, Confederate Veteran (July 1914), p. 296.

[3] Miss Lida T. Rodman, ‘President Address’, in UDC, North Carolina Division, Minutes 1899, p. 5.

[4] Mrs. Robert Emory Park, ‘Response to President Address, Ninth Continental Congress, First Day’, American Monthly Magazine 16, no. 4 (April 1900), p. 393.

[5] David Nakamura, ‘Trump mourns loss of ‘beautiful statues and monuments’ in wake of Charlottesville rally over Robert E. Lee Statue’, Washington Post, 17 Aug 2017 [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/08/17/trump-mourns-loss-of-beautiful-statues-and-monuments-in-wake-of-charlottesville-rally-over-robert-e-lee-statue/, accessed 17 November 2019].

[6] Julia Zorthian, ‘President Trump Says It’s ‘Sad’ to See U.S. Culture ‘Ripped Apart’ by Removing Confederate Statues’, Time Magazine, 17 August 2017 [https://time.com/4904510/donald-trump-twitter-confederate-statues/, accessed 16 November 2019].

Image credit: ‘Unveiling Confederate Monument, Arlington [Virginia]’, 4 June 1914 (Source: National Photo Company).

 

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